When developing a product, it can be dangerous to make assumptions about how to prioritize new features and updates. Sometimes, what customers want and what they need are two different things and a product manager must use data to bridge that gap. However, a purely data-driven approach that doesn’t account for what customers are asking for can be equally detrimental. We talked to Natalie Seatter, Chief Product Officer at OAG to get her thoughts on this dichotomy, how OAG is transforming the way businesses access flight information, her 6 core steps to effective product development, and what she’s learned over the course of her career.
Natalie Seatter | Interview
With a proven track record in product delivery and development Natalie has worked in technology for the last decade but describes herself as sector agnostic, enjoying the differences and learning opportunities that working in alternative sectors and organisations provide.
Thanks for joining us, Natalie. Can you tell us about your role and how it has evolved over the course of your career?
I’m a classic problem solver. I can get obsessed with other people’s problems. I love getting to the root of a problem and working collaboratively to try and solve it. I’m curious and I’m wired to understand people and what makes them tick, so I’ve always enjoyed speaking to customers, hearing their challenges, identifying trends, and working out potential solutions to their problems. I’ve found that this inclination lends itself well to working in product-related roles.
I have spent much of my career delivering large-scale digital transformations and driving cross-organisational collaboration to deliver results, always using the voice of the customer and data to ensure that value is delivered. I’ve spent the last 10 years in product delivery, successfully putting proposed solutions into action, and I have found that my energy and natural skillset lends itself well to product strategy and management.
Tell us about your current company, OAG.
Sure. So OAG has been around for almost a century and started life as a publisher, hence our name: ‘Official Aviation Guide’. I think OAG is a brilliant example of ongoing evolution with its transformation from a paper guide publisher to technology-driven data provider. Today we handle over 5,000 schedule updates per hour and more than 4 billion flight status data requests annually. The data is always changing, so we are on a constant mission to maintain and improve the coverage, completeness, quality and freshness of our data.
Whilst data aggregation plays a part in what we do, our main focus lies in using our expertise to drive data quality and enabling technology to deliver better solutions for our customers. We’re on a journey to enrich our data with new and improved datasets and through our data science expertise. We place a lot of emphasis on strong partnerships with ambitious companies, who work fast and have great data. We have a brilliant Data Science team who are also using our data to help with predictive modelling. This means we can make solid predictions based on our data analysis, to deliver extra value to our customers.
Culturally, OAG is a great place to work—it genuinely feels like a big family and there are no internal politics or drama. This is really refreshing and it means that we can all focus on executing our strategy which enables us to continuously make progress. Our CEO cares deeply about his people and has built a great culture where you feel truly empowered to be the best version of yourself every day. However, we’re conscious that we can’t stand still for a moment—so we’re always keeping one eye on the future and looking to change for the better, whatever that might involve.
How do you make decisions on how to best build and grow your product?
In my mind, there are 6 steps I rely on to guide our product development process:
- Talk to your customers: First and foremost, listen. Ask the right questions. For anyone who has not read “The Mom Test,” do not ask customers if they think your product is a good idea! In our case we really want to get under the skin of what a customer uses our data for and understand how our data and platform can create value for them and their business.
- Understand their challenges: When we live in such a changing world it’s important to do this regularly. What is their business model and how is it changing? What are their problems and challenges? Why do those pain points exist? What impact does this have on their own customers? Why is their current product not able to solve these problems? Identify your customers’ problems and then solve them—that’s the secret to long-term success, no matter what business you happen to be in.
- Prioritise: You can’t solve everything for everyone all at once. Don’t try to bite off more than you can chew—if you suddenly rip up the rulebook and completely change your platform, you’ll likely anger more customers than those that you’ll please. The key is to identify trends. You don’t want to embark on a costly 6-month development initiative if one customer has raised a particular problem, but if many customers are all saying the same thing, you know this is a wider problem that you need to solve. Which leads us to experiments…
- Experiment: We’re big fans of rapid experimentation as it enables us to learn fast and make the right product decisions with minimal investment. You need a clear hypothesis statement and acceptance criteria to keep everyone honest in terms of whether the idea is viable or not, and really there is no failure as experiments are a continuous source of learning. Be prepared to undertake intense and rapid market testing to gather customer feedback; it can be exhausting and exhilarating in equal measure. It’s this feedback that will enable you to make the right product and investment decisions to solve customer problems at scale.
- Communicate: Effective communication is the secret behind successful teams, whether you’re talking about a large department in a multinational bank, a tiny startup operating out of a garage, or a professional sports team. To be honest, I could have put communication as the very first step because it’s so important at every stage of product development. However, once you’ve tested and validated a concept and it’s time to begin the development process itself, effective communication is paramount. You need to tell your team what you’re looking for, outline the steps necessary to achieve the goal, map out timelines, check in with subteams, and generally ensure the smooth delivery of the product in question.
- Collaborate: Product can often be found at the intersection of Engineering and Commerce. It is essential that relationships and collaboration are strong across these areas to harness different teams and their individual strengths to contribute to the product development process. We are very fortunate to work with a brilliant CTO and engineering team here at OAG and the Product and Tech teams are able to work in a psychologically safe environment where diverse views are shared and discussed. It’s diversity of thought that really creates value and helps us find the right way forward.
It sounds like you’ve created a well-defined process from your wealth of experience. Looking back on this experience, can you tell me about a time that you failed and what you learned from this?
I’m sure you’ve heard the saying that your greatest strength is also your greatest weakness. At the beginning of our chat, I mentioned that I’ve always loved identifying and solving problems—but what you might not know is that this has resulted in multiple career “failures” for me.
I’ve had to learn that not everyone shares my love of problem or opportunity identification, particularly when the problem is hierarchically or structurally someone else’s problem to solve. It has taken me many years to understand how problematic this can be and if I’m honest, it’s still something I struggle to understand. It’s important to recognise that, despite your best intentions, sometimes you’re at the heart of your own failures. This can be a bitter pill to swallow—but you need to be honest with yourself if you’re going to fulfil your potential.
As a result, I now know that I have to work on reining my natural tendency in and that it’s also important for me to work in companies where this attitude is accepted and even encouraged.
The best companies are continuously improving all the time, and they adopt the same approach that they use to solve their customers’ problems to make their own business better each and every day. At OAG, I’m fortunately given the freedom to collaborate with lots of different teams and reinvent internal processes—instead of simply staying in my lane and focusing only on customer-facing solutions.
Another failure is my inclination to work 60-80 hours a week just because I become so focused on the mission. I know now, from bitter experience, that this inhibits my ability to do my best work and can result in burnout after a sustained period of time. This is something that I have to constantly check in on and it will be a lifelong challenge for me, I think.
Do you think that your all-or-nothing attitude comes from having a particularly competitive personality?
Not really, no. I genuinely love the work that I do, and it is because of that love and passion that I find it hard to stop sometimes. When you can see progress being made and tangible results being delivered it motivates you to just keep doing more. But I do want to be a good role model for my colleagues and my children, and finding better balance is always going to be my biggest challenge in relation to this.
And I don’t really understand being driven by competition. Who wants to be someone else? Just be yourself, as a person or as a business – focus on your customers and how you can help them and pursue this path relentlessly.
If you invest the time in really hearing your customers, listening to them, and getting under the skin of their problems, this will lead to success. The principle isn’t particularly hard to understand—but it can be difficult to implement on a daily basis. Those that do manage to do this, however, will reap the rewards.